CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Mitt Romney cruised to a solid victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, improving on his first-place finish in the lead-off Iowa caucuses and firmly establishing himself as the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination.
"Tonight we made history," Romney told cheering supporters before pivoting to a stinging denunciation of President Barack Obama. "The middle class has been crushed," in the past three years, he said, "our debt is too high and our opportunities too few" — remarks that made clear he intends to be viewed as the party's nominee in waiting after only two contests.
His rivals said otherwise, looking ahead to South Carolina on Jan. 21 as the place to stop the former Massachusetts governor.
Even so, the order of finish — Ron Paul second, followed by Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — scrambled the field and prolonged the increasingly desperate competition to emerge as the true conservative rival to Romney.
Romney fashioned his victory despite a sustained assault by rivals eager to undermine his claim as the contender best situated to beat Obama and help reduce the nation's painfully high unemployment.
Returns from 33 percent of New Hampshire precincts showed Romney with 37 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Rep Paul with 24 percent, former Utah Gov. Huntsman with 17 percent and former House Speaker Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum with 10 percent each. With his victory, Romney became the first Republican to sweep the first two contests in competitive races since Iowa gained the lead-off spot in presidential campaigns in 1976.
Romney battled not only his rivals but also high expectations as the ballots were counted, particularly since his pursuers had virtually conceded New Hampshire, next-door to the state he governed for four years.
"Tonight we celebrate," Romney told his supporters. "Tomorrow we go back to work."
Rightly so. Already, candidates and political action committees aligned with them were reserving enormous amounts of television time for the first-in-the-South primary in little more than a week.
Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where unemployment is well below the national average, joblessness is far higher in South Carolina. That creates a different political environment for the race.